WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan and his body was recovered, President Barack Obama said on Sunday.
"Justice has been done," Obama said in a dramatic, late-night White House speech announcing the death of the elusive mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people.
It is was major accomplishment for Obama and his national security team and could give him a political boost as he seeks re-election in 2012.
And it was at least a huge symbolic blow to al Qaeda, the militant organization that has staged bloody attacks in many western and Arab countries cities and has been the subject of a worldwide campaign against it.
Obama said U.S. forces led a targeted operation that killed bin Laden in Abbotabad north of Islamabad. No Americans were killed in the operation and they took care to avoid civilian casualties, he said.
In Washington, thousands of people gathered quickly outside the White House, waving American flags, cheering and chanting "USA, USA, USA." Car drivers blew their horns in celebration and people streamed to Lafayette Park across from the presidential mansion. Police vehicles with their lights flashing stood vigil.
"I'm down here to witness the history. My boyfriend is commissioning as a Marine next week. So I'm really proud of the troops," Laura Vogler, a junior at American University in Washington, said outside the White House.
Many Americans had given up hope of ever finding bin Laden after he vanished in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in late 2001 as U.S. and allied forces invaded the country in response to the September 11 attacks.
Intelligence that originated last August provided the clues that eventually led to bin Laden's trail, the president said. A U.S. official said Obama gave the final order to pursue the operation last Friday morning.
"The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda and a terrorist who is responsible for the murder of thousands of men, women and children," Obama said.
A crowd gathered in Lafayette Park outside the White House erupted in jubilation at the news. Hundreds of people waved flags, hugged and cheered.
Former President George W. Bush, who famously vowed to bring bin Laden to justice "dead or alive" but never did, called the operation a "momentous achievement" after Obama called him with the news.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, described bin Laden's death as "a body blow" to al Qaeda at a time when its ideology was already being undercut by the popular revolutions in the Arab world.
Statements of appreciation poured in from both sides of Washington's often divided political divide. Republican Senator John McCain declared, "I am overjoyed that we finally got the world's top terrorist."
Said former President Bill Clinton: "I congratulate the president, the national security team and the members of our armed forces on bringing Osama bin Laden to justice after more than a decade of murderous al Qaeda attacks."
Having the body may help convince any doubters that bin Laden is really dead.
Bin Laden had been hunted since he eluded U.S. soldiers and Afghan militia forces in a large-scale assault on the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan close to the Pakistan frontier in 2001.
The trail quickly went cold after he disappeared and many intelligence officials believed he had been hiding in Pakistan.
While in hiding, bin Laden had taunted the West and advocated his militant Islamist views in videotapes spirited from his hideaway.
Besides September 11, Washington has also linked bin Laden to a string of attacks -- including the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 bombing of the warship USS Cole in Yemen.
How the Americans found Osama's "hideout"
By Patricia Zengerle and Alister Bull – 2 hrs 54 mins ago
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. forces finally found al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden not in a mountain cave on Afghanistan's border, but with his youngest wife in a million-dollar compound in a summer resort just over an hour's drive from Pakistan's capital, U.S. officials said.
A small U.S. team conducted a night-time helicopter raid on the compound early on Monday. After 40 minutes of fighting, bin Laden and an adult son, one unidentified woman and two men were dead, the officials said.
U.S. forces were led to the fortress-like three-story building after more than four years tracking one of bin Laden's most trusted couriers, whom U.S. officials said was identified by men captured after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
"Detainees also identified this man as one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden. They indicated he might be living with or protected by bin Laden," a senior administration official said in a briefing for reporters.
Bin Laden was finally found -- more than 9-1/2 years after the 2001 attacks on the United States -- after authorities discovered in August 2010 that the courier lived with his brother and their families in an unusual and extremely high-security building, officials said.
They said the courier and his brother were among those killed in the raid.
"When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound," a senior administration official said.
"The bottom line of our collection and our analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound harbored a high-value terrorist target. The experts who worked this issue for years assessed that there was a strong probability that the terrorist who was hiding there was Osama bin Laden," another administration official said.
The home is in Abbottabad, a town about 35 miles north of Islamabad, that is relatively affluent and home to many retired members of Pakistan's military.
It was a far cry from the popular notion of bin Laden hiding in some mountain cave on the rugged and inaccessible Afghan-Pakistan border -- an image often evoked by officials up to and including former President George W. Bush.
The building, about eight times the size of other nearby houses, sat on a large plot of land that was relatively secluded when it was built in 2005. When it was constructed, it was on the outskirts of Abbottabad's center, at the end of a dirt road, but some other homes have been built nearby in the six years since it went up, officials said.
WALLS TOPPED WITH BARBED WIRE
Intense security measures included 12- to 18-foot outer walls topped with barbed wire and internal walls that sectioned off different parts of the compound, officials said. Two security gates restricted access, and residents burned their trash, rather than leaving it for collection as did their neighbors, officials said.
Few windows of the three-story home faced the outside of the compound, and a terrace had a seven-foot (2.1 meter) privacy wall, officials said.
"It is also noteworthy that the property is valued at approximately $1 million but has no telephone or Internet service connected to it," an administration official said. "The brothers had no explainable source of wealth."
U.S. analysts realized that a third family lived there in addition to the two brothers, and the age and makeup of the third family matched those of the relatives -- including his youngest wife -- they believed would be living with bin Laden.
"Everything we saw, the extremely elaborate operational security, the brothers' background and their behavior and the location of the compound itself was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden's hide-out to look like," another Obama administration official said.
Abbottabad is a popular summer resort, located in a valley surrounded by green hills near Pakistani Kashmir. Islamist militants, particularly those fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir, used to have training camps near the town.
(Editing by Mary Milliken, Will Dunham and Mark Trevelyan)